"The world always seems quieter when it snows," says Aloy, looking across the sprawling mountainous regions of Horizon Forbidden West.
While anticipation is sky-high for Horizon Forbidden West – arguably the biggest PS5 game to date – surprisingly it wasn't the enormous open-world environment or the epic encounters with 50-foot mechanical mammoths that resonated most. It was the quieter, character-driven moments that helped push Aloy into the pantheons of PlayStation's greats.
Horizon Zero Dawn was an open world post-apocalypse game that had the misfortune of being released just days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an open world post-apocalypse game that instantly became an all-time great. Like many others, I found Zero Dawn a fantastic game in its own right, just not one of the greatest games of all time. Now five years on and separated from the shadow of a looming Zelda launch, is this Horizon Forbidden West's time to shine?
Horizon Forbidden West review: price and release date
- What is it? A single-player open-world action RPG that serves as a sequel to 2017's Horizon Zero Dawn
- Release date? February 18, 2022
- What platforms can I play it on? PS5, PS4
- Price? $69.99 / £66.99 / $AU124.95 (PS5), $59.99 / £59.99 / $AU109.95 (PS4)
Horizon Forbidden West review: What is it?
Horizon Forbidden West picks up with protagonist Aloy six months after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn. A mysterious new plague has begun sweeping the land, destroying all life in its path. Convinced that she is the only one that can stop the plague from spreading further, Aloy searches for a backup of the AI programme known as GAIA to help prevent greater death and destruction. This, in turn, takes the huntress to the new Forbidden West territory.
Guerrilla Games has once again handled the development of both the PS5 and PS4 versions, most impressively showing how far the studio has come since the days of Killzone. The narrative itself is extremely ambitious, going places you wouldn't expect and leaning much heavier into the sci-fi elements than its predecessor. It doesn't jump the robo-shark as such but does skirt the lines sometimes.
A large part of the story boils down to a fetch quest (it's a video game after all), it is compelling and gives a good enough reason to explore the many stunning regions that the Forbidden West offers.
Ashly Burch is impeccable as Aloy: "scaling an ancient rickety tower with killer machines waiting down below," she says, evoking the same charisma Nathan Drake channels in Uncharted. This is her story, proving to be a formidable force that carries the burdens of all of mankind's hopes of survival. So once she gets in over her head and the emotional weight of it all becomes too much, Burch delivers a real human performance.
One aspect that I really didn't expect to like as much is the ensemble cast. Outside of Sylens and Erend, I couldn't name a single of Aloy's companions from the first game. But in Forbidden West, it goes to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure you know each character well, as you slowly grow your own team. This all builds to a joyful Avengers-like moment that while done to death in this day and age, still had me smiling from ear to ear.
Horizon Forbidden West review: How does it play?
Horizon Forbidden West is an action RPG that plays pretty identically to the first game, think linear levels found within a massive open world. Combat is designed around taking down the machines via bow and arrow, spear and an arsenal of other prehistoric weapons.
The Pullcastor (grapple hook) and Shieldwing (paraglider) are the biggest upgrades that have been introduced to help exploration reach new heights. The latter can also pull down structures. They feel fantastic too; adding to the cinematic feel of it all, allowing Aloy to throw herself off a cliff's edge without the fear of falling to a grizzly death.
Climbing has received a noticeable enhancement too. More often than not there are now markers brought on by using Aloy's Focus – an augmented reality device that allows the character to scan the environment - which make scaling the bulk of the land possible. Movement actually feels quite similar to Uncharted, making you wonder if Guerrilla spoke with fellow PlayStation studio Naughty Dog for some tips.
Video games still struggle to convey fun when it comes to swimming; Horizon is no different, no matter the number of submerged machines there are to discover. What I can say is that it's bearable and doesn't take up that much of the campaign. The depths radiate a beautiful crystal but I'd be lying if I didn't want to get back to land as soon as possible.
The only exception to this is during a lengthy segment where you plummet the depths of a ruined casino, forcing Aloy to drain the building in order to progress. Without weapons accessible underwater, it offers a lot of tension as Snapmaws (crocodiles) ever circle. The culmination of this particular portion is exceptional, and one of the most memorable in the entire experience.
The original Horizon Zero Dawn's side-missions felt slightly lacking for me. Go here, take down a machine. Go there, take down another machine. You get the idea. This time around, it still has the machine destroying element but there's a better variety. Whether it's machine racing, figuring out the solution to reach the peak of a Tallneck, a Melee Pit where you face off against other hunters in combat, or even a surprisingly deep board game called Machine Strike, everything feels a step up. This variety is again bettered by being able to dive to the bottom of the ocean or ride tall on the back of a Sunwing. Whatever the case, it just works.
It also helps that the skill tree is much more comprehensive, allowing the player to craft Aloy into the type of hunter they wish – be that, Warrior, Trapper, Hunter, Survivor, Infiltrator or Machine Master. As someone that enjoys jumping straight into combat rather than stealth, the Warrior skills offer a bountiful of different moves to grasp along with special perks (known as Valor Surge) that charge over time, ready to be unleashed whenever in trouble.
No doubt a big draw is the machines. Bigger, badder and a better variety, it felt rare to encounter the same boss-style machine more than once. In truth, I'm sure I only encountered a couple of Tremortusks (elephants) and Slitherfangs (cobras) during the main campaign. What helps encapsulate the scale of these beasts is the DualSense's haptic feedback, ramping up the pressure whenever hunting their prey. Similarly, the DualSense's adaptive trigger tension really makes you feel it every time Aloy fires off an arrow from her bow.
On top of that, Guerrilla has done a great job with its accessibility options, expanding upon the already impressive suite in Horizon Zero Dawn. A new custom difficulty that tailors how much damage Aloy gives out and receives as well as a new co-pilot setting to allow a second player to jump in on the action are the biggest new, welcome additions. It does seem like the studio has really taken on feedback to make the game as accessible as possible.
This all paints a near-flawless experience, which it would be... if not for the bugs. Camera glitches, soldiers stuck in walls, surfaces not reacting correctly and vents blocked were a few examples of the numerous minor issues I encountered. The major ones were several crashes and a locked loading screen meaning that I needed to return to a save 20 minutes prior. Sony has now rolled out a day one patch that looks to address these issues.
Horizon Forbidden West review: How does it look and sound?
Be it the snow drenched mountains, the sunny shores of San Francisco's remains or the desolate ruins of what was once Las Vegas, the game glows with beauty. The water takes real advantage of the console's capabilities. Honestly, it's staggering to look at! Players can choose between either 60fps in Performance Mode or 4K resolution in Quality Mode to help bolster the action or get lost in the stunning vistas found at every turn. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is also available for TVs that support it.
Facial animations across the board have received the biggest upgrade, now able to evoke more convincing emotions. Few games rival this level of authenticity. Aloy's hair for one is scary real, for both good and bad. Sometimes it reacts as it should to normal physics but other times it will dance about as if the huntress was standing in front of a blaring wind turbine. It was quite distracting but should hopefully be patched out by the time you read this.
In some ways, it's the lack of music that really elevates the world of Horizon. The scampering of a fox, the plantlife swaying in the breeze or the galloping footsteps of a Charger. That said, it ramps up when it needs to. The music used to convey a Tremortusk approaching for instance is electrifying.
Aloy as a character is now up there with the likes of Nathan Drake, Kratos, Crash Bandicoot and other Sony mascots, and her theme plays a big part in that. It's iconic. It's Aloy through and through. You hear it, you immediately know exactly who it's referring to. That takes some doing.
Horizon Forbidden West review: How long to beat?
It took me approximately 28 hours to roll credits on Horizon Forbidden West. After testing out nearly every piece of side content once, I spent most of my time mainlining the narrative. There are more than 15 additional side-mission variants, from Hunting Grounds and Melee Pits to Rebel Camps and Cauldrons, which if all are beaten would easily increase the playtime to twice if not three times the length.
The game continuously feels like it's expanding its map, with the first time this really happening close to 12 hours in. It then did it again at the 20-hour mark. Like the original though, Forbidden West does suffer from lore overload. Text, audio files, character bios, machine catalogues – you name it! It can be overwhelming and I imagine if you did commit to reading every tidbit the game puts forward, it would extend the playtime quite significantly.
Thankfully, the ending delivers in blockbuster fashion and is quite the challenge - especially if you don't get a chance to level up Aloy via additional side-missions and such. All of which set up a very interesting future for the series. One I can't wait to see.
Horizon Forbidden West is amazingly ambitious in every sense of the word, continuing the high bar that Sony has achieved time and time again with its blockbuster releases. While swimming is lacking and the story comes close to getting out of hand a couple of times, it's hard to deny that Horizon Forbidden West is Guerrilla's best game yet and Aloy is now among the pantheons of PlayStation's greats.
If you like the sound of Horizon Forbidden West then I'd highly recommend giving Horizon Zero Dawn a try. By playing through Aloy's first adventure, naturally more weight is given to the story and it helps set up returning characters, although, a recap video is available upon first boot up for those that are wanting to jump straight in. Aside from this, the obvious recommendation is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a similar action-adventure with a huge open world to explore and top-notch puzzles.